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What do successful projects look like? Is it about profitability? Is it about making clients happy? A proud team? Or always hitting deadlines?

Success often means the avoidance of potential failures. And failure avoidance is about surfacing and mitigating risk.

Risk to project delivery comes in many forms. Complete failure is luckily rare. Most project risks only reduce the amount of success that can be achieved, and value that can be created.

Modern agencies serve many concurrent clients. Every one is different. They come with distinct requirements and people. Every project is unique. With new outcomes and deliverables.

Risk needs consideration and review before every new project.

Risks to Agency and Project

Client risk goes beyond the scope of this article. It deserves its own write-up. The focus here is risks to agency and project.

There are ways to mitigate or avoid the impact of many project risk types. Like putting guardrails in place to stop them occurring in the first place.

Guardrails take the form of working agreements, processes and approvals. They help keep projects on track without the need for awkward conversations.

The most powerful way to avoiding risk is to define, then choose the right delivery approach for the project.

For the agencies I work with, that means using my Project Approach Matrix. It’s used to gather information, then select which of the agency’s approaches is right to use for the project.

It also flags up mismatches between the right delivery approach and the client’s potential. A situation that might lead to ongoing friction and frustration.

Beyond approach choice

Risks to the agency and project are not only about the delivery approach. Many risks need consideration first. At agency level, or before each project.

Estimation Inaccuracy

Relevant for: Fixed price projects

How accurately can a team estimate time. Usually to complete the agreed work. Meaning the cost associate with that work is known.

The more complex (big or complicated) a project, the more challenging estimation is, and so the more risk there is.

The less well-defined a project is at kick-off, the more challenging it is to estimate it, and so the more risk there is.

An agency might target a 25% profit margin. Their team’s estimates must be accurate enough to enable that. If estimates are consistently 25% or more under, there is a risk the project will lose money.

Communication Failures

Relevant for: All projects

How clearly and promptly is a team able to speak to a relevant client contact. Allowing the team to get approval for completed work, or agree a plan for what’s next.

Less available stakeholders means more challenging communication processes. Delays and overlaps mean more risk.

Early in client relationships, ways of working are less aligned. It can be more challenging to work with them. That friction leads to risk.

Stakeholder misalignment

Relevant for: All projects

How well is the client team aligned on expectation before the project starts. How likely is there to be client disappointment or dismay.

Is the agency creating something that the client actually needs and wants?

Are the client and the agency imagining the same delivery approach and outcomes? Is the client likely to be surprised during the project?

Are the client’s team — or stakeholders — misaligned or conflicted about the project? Could this lead to disagreements and project delays?

There needs to be clarity around who will need to review and approve work during the project. Rework and delays are a risk otherwise.

Focus Deficit

Relevant for: All projects

How many concurrent projects will the team work on. How much impact could less focus, context switching, and time away have.

The more parallel projects the team works on, the higher the rate of context switching. 

Lack of focus makes estimation more challenging. Teams must focus on deep work and meaningful progress for value creation.

See also…

Capacity Shortfall

Relevant for: All projects

How able are the team to spend enough time on the project. How much potential is there for missing deadlines and under delivering.

Can the team actually do the hours required for success? Will the team focus on the project enough to be able to achieve the output and quality required?

Are there enough people with required experience and skills to support the concurrent projects?

It’s tempting for agencies to stack work and default to saying yes. Sometimes this makes for complex capacity juggling and potentially project delays.

Scope Mismatch

Relevant for: Fixed scope projects

How aligned are everybody’s expectations on scope. How likely is the scope to creep, or seep, or just disappoint.

There are clients who require fixed scope projects. In these instances, the team must match this mindset and fix the scope to avoid risk. No scope creep. No scope seep. Flexing invites risk.

The client might confirm a flexible scope. The client must then confirm project success is outcome based. The work cannot come down to the contents of a requirements document and be flexible.

Match scope expectations with approach to avoid risk.

Tools or Technology Upskilling

Relevant for: All projects

How well does the team know the tools they’ll use. How likely are there to be delays and overruns while they learn them.

The less well known the chosen tools or tech to use, the more challenging it is to estimate it, the more risk there is

Is there enough knowledge of a tool or tech in the team, or will a new project require team members to upskill.

I’ve often championed the idea of ‘boring tech’. Where an agency chooses and sticks to a limited number of trusted tools and technologies. Avoiding repeatedly chasing the latest thing.

Boring tech is not about specialising, more rationalising. Reducing support overhead and knowledge silos. Avoiding supporting many different technologies. Reducing risk.


Relevant for: All projects

How stable are the involved services and suppliers. How likely is there to be delays or complications which are beyond our control

The project may require the integration of services which are not field-tested. Those services may not have the uptime needed to avoid an impact on development.

Alignment with suppliers and partners should happen early. Ensuring successful interactions and integrations. Any delay may impact the development process.

Which areas to Prioritise?

Surfacing and reducing project risk doesn’t have to be overwhelming. But an agency must spend time before kick-off working through several key areas.

Choose the right approach from a trusted set.

The wrong delivery approach can break a project. Fixed scope requires a very different approach to outcome based needs.

Aligned Expectations

Align on expectations with the client. This will include delivery approach. Measuring success. Deadlines. Technology. Costs.

Don’t overpromise

This isn’t about under-promising and over-delivering. Start simple and focus on what the client expects. Get comfortable working together. Build from there. 

Only surprise a client once they trust an approach.

Stick to the delivery approach

Stick to the selected approach without any exceptions.

A rigid scope with occasional flex isn’t rigid. Don’t over-deliver. No scope creep or seep. No Brucie Bonuses.

For flexible scope only allow outcome based success measures. No returning to a requirements list or specification document.

Initial Review

For many agencies, a detailed examination of risks might be a new practice. In these cases, an initial review is invaluable. This review involves a structured process to address each risk comprehensively.

Consider each risk in turn.


  • Determine if the risk exists at the agency level or is specific to each project.
  • Identify who within the team has the most knowledge about the risk.


  • Evaluate the seriousness of the risk. Is it critical, or is it already managed within current delivery approaches or processes?
  • Determine if the risk affects every project or only specific types.


  • Develop strategies to mitigate the risk. Trust them.
  • Plan necessary changes in advance if required. Identify if a risk can be easily managed with existing resources.

Ensuring Ongoing Success

Some risks need to be considered at the beginning of every project. Others should be reviewed only when onboarding a new client. Many risks are agnostic to the chosen delivery approach and should be integrated into agency level processes.

Regular Review

  • Establish a routine for regular risk assessments. This should be part of the project kick-off process and revisited at key milestones.
  • Ensure continuous alignment with project goals and client expectations.

Stakeholder Engagement

  • Maintain open communication with all stakeholders. Identify new risks and gather feedback on mitigation strategies.
  • Regular updates and feedback sessions are essential for staying ahead of potential issues.

Dynamic Risk Management

  • consider a log that is regularly updated. In it reflect the current status of all identified risks.
  • Monitor the effectiveness of mitigation strategies. Adjust them as necessary.

This proactive approach ensures that potential failures are surfaced and mitigated early.


Risk management is critical for success in project delivery. Agencies can mitigate potential failures. Conducting an initial review. Use ongoing processes to ensure consistent success. 

Small steps are fine. Ongoing improvement beats overinvestment in perfection.

Success often means the avoidance of potential failures. And failure avoidance is about surfacing and mitigating risk.

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